Liszt is still a misunderstood figure. He's often dismissed for being nothing but a flashy virtuoso, but that's not really a fair judgment. In a piano lesson with Liszt, a student was playing the famous A-flat Major Polonaise by Chopin. At the moment when the left hand begins its relentless march in octaves, Liszt burst out: "Do I care how fast you can play your octaves!? What I wish to hear is the canter of the horses of the Polish cavalry before they gather force and destroy the enemy!"
Why the thunderous reaction? Because Liszt deplored empty virtuosity. He was inspired by the communicative power of music, not by the deadening, hollow effect of technical facility on display. And he was determined to bring his students into his imaginative universe.
It's true that during his years of intensive concertizing (roughly 1839-1847), an emotional hysteria developed in Liszt's fans, and "Lisztomania" set in. But I'm more intrigued by the mesmerizing effect that Liszt seems to have had on his audiences. Biographer Alan Walker describes one scene in which Hector Berlioz and a small group of colleagues succumbed to Liszt's playing in a drawing room. The fire was nearly out and the lamplight was dying. Critic Ernest Legouvé accidentally turned the wick down instead of up and the room went nearly to black. Liszt began playing Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. It was too much for Berlioz, who couldn't control his emotions. The others could barely move.
Many accounts of Liszt's playing describe a strange magic, a hypnotizing focus. He wasn't presenting egotistical theatrics. He brought the audience to a new level of listening and put them, not him, on a higher plane. In such a state, listeners were given the chance to absorb his creations — new music that would belong more and more to the future, ultimately presaging the intricate coloristic effects of impressionism, and even evocative flirtations with atonality. His audiences also had a greater chance to absorb the works of composers he championed (Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata, for instance).
More astounding still is the fact that Liszt's gift for performance came with other unfathomable talents. He created the symphonic poem and the piano recital. He conducted, taught, transcribed and edited. His hundreds and hundreds of pieces reflect his love of life on Earth, his intimate experience with deep sadness and a fundamental yearning for God.
I'm happy that this year's focus on Liszt has encouraged a deeper look into the radical adventurer that he was. Here are some glimpses of Liszt's genius in piano performances captured by our WGBH engineers here in Boston.
(Cathy Fuller is WGBH's host for morning classical music and Live From Fraser.)